Growing pains in the Advanced Placement program

The Advanced Placement (AP) Program is enjoying a growth spurt in the United States. Over the past five years, the number of high-school students taking at least one AP exam increased more than 50 percent. There's probably no education program in America that's been expanding faster.

This is indisputably a good thing, right? After all, even our notoriously tough reviewers of state standards and curricula found AP generally worthy of gold star status. Furthermore, studies have shown that even when students score poorly on the exam (earning a 2) and don't receive college credit, they still achieve higher average GPAs in college than their non-AP peers (when matched on SAT scores and family income).

But isn't it possible that the opening up and rapid democratization of AP might jeopardize its quality, perhaps adversely affecting the education of the top students who are most capable of tackling rigorous academic work? Are their AP courses being subtly "dumbed down" as more and possibly less-prepared students flock into them?

We set out to investigate this question, with the help of the FDR Group and the Templeton Foundation, by asking AP teachers themselves what they see happening to the program. The result is our latest study, Growing Pains in the Advanced Placement Program: Do Tough Trade-offs Lie Ahead?

In a nutshell, we find their views about AP growth to be highly conflicted, mostly positive toward the program's expansion but tinged with concern that the quality of the AP student body is diminishing. "A little more gatekeeping, please," is one message we heard, albeit faintly.

AP teachers are mostly satisfied with the overall quality of the program's curriculum and courses. Most say these bedrocks have stayed fairly consistent, even during a time of rapid expansion. Granted, the survey's respondents (and focus-group participants) have "skin in the game," since they are themselves guardians of this respected, even iconic, program. Yet the findings also reveal a schism in how AP teachers view the program's democratization.

We asked them to choose whether it's better to open up the program to all students to widen opportunity or limit it to those high school pupils most capable of meeting its demands. The majority (52 percent) prefer to allow into AP classes only those students deemed able to handle the material. But a large minority (38 percent) would admit more students who want to take the classes, even if they do poorly. (The rest didn't have a clear answer to that one.) It's not an overwhelming margin but does indicate that more teachers are concerned about an open-doors policy than are eager to embrace it.

Some influential folks, however, would forge ahead with AP democratization regardless of teacher concerns. Veteran Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews is one of them. Years ago, he devised the annual "Challenge Index," a ranking of the country's best high schools published in Newsweek. He calculates it mostly by dividing the number of AP tests taken by the number of graduating seniors.

This might seem insignificant (it's only one metric, after all) but roughly 40 percent of the teachers who are familiar with this ranking say it's had some impact on their school's approach to AP. Mathews insists that AP courses should be made available to all students on the grounds that it is a good program and its rising tide will lift all boats. We're not so sure. Boats that aren't properly moored can capsize or sink when the tide rises.

One thing is for sure, though: The College Board agrees with Mathews. For years, it has beaten the equitable-access drum, routinely tracking what it calls an "equity and excellence gap." "True equity," the Board explains, "is not achieved until the demographics of AP participation and performance reflect the demographics of the nation." That's surely an admirable goal. But what happens when schools don't prepare students to handle the AP challenge? To its credit, the Board maintains that "All willing and academically prepared students deserve the opportunity to succeed in rigorous, college level experiences." But therein lies the rub: Are all willing students also academically prepared?

On the one hand, the percentage of the 2008 high school graduating class scoring at least one 3 on an AP test rose to 15 percent, up from 12 percent in 2003. But on the other, the percentage of all AP exams receiving grades of 3 or higher declined from 62 percent to 58 percent, and the mean score slipped from 2.96 to 2.85. 

That's neither a ringing endorsement of, nor a fatal flaw in, the more-open-doors policy. Still, it'll be worth watching to see if mean scores continue to inch down over the next few years in the aftermath of widening AP access.

Unfortunately, national (and limited state-level) AP data cannot answer the myriad impact and efficacy questions that deserve attention. We know dreadfully little about the impact of the AP Program on important student outcomes, much less that of a more-open-doors policy on the program and its student outcomes. Mostly that's because the College Board has been distressingly tight-fisted with its data. They will not grant requests for school-level and student-level data; one must get permission from individual states and schools. And that's nearly impossible as a research protocol, particularly when one is interested in examining a critical mass of participating schools. (We understand well the need to protect a school's--and especially a pupil's--identity, but there's no reason both can't be assigned unique identifiers to shield privacy.) Surely, the larger research and policy community would benefit from its own "open doors" policy when it comes to AP data--and the country would benefit from more nuanced slicing and analysis of those data by non-College Board researchers.

America has enjoyed much success in ensuring that the AP program is available to more students, including the disadvantaged, but we'd be wise now to make sure that further growth is judicious, not foolhardy. If tough choices have to be made, who will (or should) benefit more in the long run--pupils deemed best able to handle the rigors of AP or those less able but willing to take the plunge? Will the warning signs identified by teachers (e.g., students in over their heads) lead to eventual watering down or beefing up of the program? These are the questions that will be essential to answer as we move forward.

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